"We are the pioneers of technology," announces lead designer Tim Willits with confidence at the start of his presentation of Rage. Is that really still true? Rage is id Software's first major in-house game since 2004's Doom III. By the time it's released next year, that will be seven years ago. Seven long years during which we've seen Unreal Engine 3 sweep the games industry and no less than two further iterations of Crytek's spectacular CryEngine. id defined gaming as much as anyone in the nineties, but aren't the days when it could call itself a pioneer long gone?
Willits doesn't need to justify his statement to us, however. Instead he just fires up Rage, created with the new id Tech 5. The game is at least a year away from release, but visually, it's almost flawless. Textures are busy with detail and eye-wateringly clean. Lighting is sharp. And the game runs fast, seldom if ever dipping so much as a toe below the 60-frames-per-second watermark, even when Willits jumps in a dune buggy and begins pelting across the landscape at extreme speed.
And here's the thing: the Rage demo is not running on some obscene high-end PC, but a regular Xbox 360. "John Carmack just loves to get things running as fast as humanly possible," Willits says casually. No kidding. The legendary coder's black magic mojo clearly hasn't left him yet, and the purchase of id by Bethesda's parent company ZeniMax Media is making more sense every frame-packed second. (Oh, and in case you're wondering, Willits claims it's currently even more stable on PS3.)
So that's id's technical relevance in 2010 confirmed with nonchalant ease. Elsewhere, however, Willits adopts a more humble tone. The action is still run-and-gun, he says, but Rage is "trying to improve the expectations people have of an id Software game". It has "other elements that make it more complete" - vehicle combat and racing, plus an actual story, and actual characters. Doom III lived in the long shadows of Half-Life 2 and the first two Halo games and as slick as it was, it couldn't help but look old-fashioned. Willits might as well say, we know we've got some catching up to do.
At the same time, he's keen to reel in some of the wilder claims that have been made about Rage in the three information-light years since its announcement. It is not quite an open-world game, being what Willits calls "open but directed", with optional side missions offering distractions from the forward thrust of its gameplay. Nor does it really have any role-playing game elements, Rage following the classic, now almost unfashionable FPS advancement path - the model id itself established - through an ever-expanding and extravagant armoury. The hero is the gun.
In other words, Rage isn't as hybridised, freeform or anarchic as Borderlands. It's hard not to draw comparisons with Gearbox's charming rogue, with both games having a touch of the Mad Max about their ramshackle wasteland societies, but in all honesty they're not particularly meaningful. Rage certainly shows id broadening its horizons, but the studio is still mainlining taut, hell-for-leather rollercoaster rides.
The game is split into two chapters organised around two hub locations, each occupying a DVD in the Xbox 360 version. "When you switch discs it's a really big story change. Once you move you won't want to go back," says Willits. It begins, not unlike Fallout 3, with your character emerging into a post-apocalyptic society - an asteroid destroyed most of civilisation - from a cryogenic "ark" beneath the earth's surface.
You find Wild West anarchy above ground. Rage's dusty orange landscape is seemingly overrun with bandits and mutants, but is actually in the shadow of a sinister totalitarian force called The Authority, which possesses suspiciously more advanced technology and is on the hunt for ark survivors and the "nanotrites" in their bodies that heal you back to life when you die. "You're Buck Rogers - a very futuristic man from the past," says Willits. There are hints that The Authority's experiments with nanotrites, rather than radiation, created the race of mutants.
For the moment, though, Willits shows us battling bandit gangs from the hub town of Wellspring. Here you can talk to characters, accept missions, buy and sell goods and race. (Of the second chapter, he'll only say that the hub is called "Subway Town" and is "completely different".) You can repair and upgrade your vehicle by indulging in racing and spending your winnings. Willits shows us a quick blast of vehicle combat, a buggy sprinting along a canyon floor firing twin roof-mounted machine guns at similar enemies; it's fast and thrilling, but doesn't look deep. "It's definitely an additive type experience," he says.
Shooting stuff in the face is still your primary concern, then. After dispatching a few fairly wretched-looking mutants we're treated to some markedly more wily bandits; faux-Cockney punks the Wasted, and the more challenging Ghosts, whose acrobatic moves and dynamic pathing through Rage's tangled, rusting industrial battlegrounds have them leaping down at you from unexpected angles.
The shooting is evidently meaty and tough, but offers a wide range of sadistic gadgetry and ammo customisation for variety. Most weapons allow for multiple ammo types, including the pistol's explosive "fatboy" bullets and electro bolts for the silent crossbow that can be used to fry groups of bandits standing in water. There's also a "wingstick", a three-bladed boomerang for quiet eviscerations.
The real fun is in the engineering items, though. These crafted gadgets are put together from recipes and parts that you find and trade, and include remote-control car bombs, gun turrets and spidery sentry bots. There's a new one of these toys in each area; if items like the turret take damage they fall apart, but some of their parts can be recovered. You can also loot enemies for items, and Rage has no inventory limit - carry as much around as you want.
That's one of several slightly old-school touches about Rage, despite its widescreen expansiveness and the granular detail of its world. And who's to say id's got that wrong? We may want sophistication and depth from the presentation and structure of our shooters these days, and Rage has that, but many gamers never lost an appetite for unsophisticated, twitchy close-range blasting with solidity and pace in their shooters, and by the look of it Rage has that too.
Plus there's the game's look; the artwork is hardly original, it's true, particularly when set side-by-side with the striking Brink, but the incredible level of detail, the vivid colours and the in-your-face, high-contrast lighting mean Rage looks anything but dull - especially in crisp, brisk motion. Willits promises there'll be more variation than we've seen too. True, his idea of varied is impact craters, canyons and a dried ocean bed, but that's already a lot better than endless steel corridors.
id won't say anything about multiplayer - beyond the fact there will be some - or the possibility of co-op yet. With Rage now not due for release until 2011, there's plenty of time. Time enough for Crysis 2 to come and go, too, but we still wouldn't bet on id's old cowboy getting left behind again - not while he still has his finger on the trigger.
Rage will be released for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2011.